Review from Top Gear
by Nik Berg (March 1, 2004)
Lotus Elise 111S
[March 01 2004]
Think about it for a moment. Without the Elise we'd probably have to make do without the Aston Martin Vanquish. Well, at least as we know it. And then there's the Aston Martin DB9, which again, probably wouldn't have existed in its present state. And, of course, no Elise means no VX220.
The Elise broke new ground. It proved that you could do remarkable things with a few sheets of aluminium and a big pot of glue, making cars that are light, strong and, above all, cheap. Sports car specialists sat up and took note.
So how come, if you can design something so cutting edge it would have had the late Colin Chapman turning green with envy in his grave, you can't bolt a half-decent engine into the back of it? It's certainly one that's had us wondering.
Well, at last Lotus has finally got round to doing something about it. But not because you or I have been nagging them. Oh no. Think for a moment: which nation could possibly sway a company looking to expand its horizons and flog more motors? Yep, where else but, the land of the 'free'? America.
Until now, the Elise, a car that we know to be one of the most CO2 friendly sports cars, has fallen foul of the law Stateside, whilst a Dodge Viper hasn't. Doesn't make much sense to us Brits, but then again, they do have a president who thinks the French don't have a word for entrepreneur.
Anyway, to meet US regulations, Lotus needed to find a new engine. So they turned to Toyota and, after much haggling emerged with a deal to use the 1.8-litre VVTiL engine from the Celica, along with its six-speed gearbox.
That, however, wasn't quite enough for the fussy Americans. They also demanded a few luxuries such as carpets, leather, aircon, electric windows and safety kit such as airbags and ABS, all of which will appear on the 'Federal Elise' when it hits America in the Spring.
In Europe the car is known as the 111R. It's largely the same, although we don't get the airbags. And most of the girlie goodies (electric windows, etc) are left on the options list.
Driving the Elise, what's immediately noticeable is that it's less crashy over the rutted roads. Amazingly, the suspension has actually been stiffened to cope with the extra weight of the Toyota running gear, yet the 111R rides better than the softer-sprung S version.
Also instantly obvious is a friendlier gearchange and a little more torque low down the rev range. However, it's up into the high numbers that this Toyota engine really shines. At 6,200rpm, its note changes from a generally enthusiastic rasp to a completely mad-for-it wail. This is accompanied by an almost turbo-like surge in acceleration that continues until the red change-up light flickers somewhere around 8,000rpm when the engine's full 189bhp is up for grabs. At these engine speeds the K-Series sounds close to catastrophic failure, yet the Toyota unit was born for such extremes.
There's a small (three per cent) weight penalty to pay for this, but the increase in power over the 111S is 18 per cent, so the R is easily the fastest Elise yet. Zero to 60mph takes 4.9 seconds and, thanks to that six-speed gearbox, top speed has soared to 150mph. No longer will Elise drivers have to make up in the corners what they lose out on the straights.
Not that there'd be any trouble doing so, for the 111R handles as sublimely as any Elise. Revised damping makes it easier on the driver when pushing the car hard over less than perfect surfaces, whilst body control in high-speed bends is superb.
Much as I would like to talk about the progressive transfer from mild understeer to spectacular oversteer, I can't. Despite driving as hard as I dare, I fail to run out of grip front or back. But I suspect that, knowing Lotus, the 111R is still capable of drifting round the Hethel roundabout with the best of them.
At three-figure speeds, the Elise feels extremely stable and there's a revised roof lining to further reduce noise levels. Most impressive is that at speeds where a K-Series Elise would be running out of energy, the Toyota-powered car has still got plenty in reserve.
And now a word on brakes. Not long ago, Lotus engineers would have told us how ABS and servo-assisted brakes dilute the driving experience. And now they've completely changed their tune. The 111R has both. But you probably wouldn't know it. Pedal feel is excellent, stopping power is unchanged and the ABS has been specially tweaked for minimal intrusion and maximum effect. It's been proven on road and on track to raise the Elise's performance a further notch.
There are a few other things worthy of note. As standard, the £27,995 111R has part-leather seats, sun visors and central locking, along with a DAB digital radio and CD player. The optional £1,995 Touring Pack fitted to our test car adds full leather or Alcantara trim, electric windows, full carpeting, increased thermal and sound insulation and even an upgraded stereo. If you want the luxuries of aircon, a hard top or metallic paint then just go and talk to your dealer.
And talk to your dealer, you should. This is quite simply, the best Elise - and probably the best Lotus - ever.